Let Them Eat Crystal: Rodney Graham and the Bankruptcy of Ironic Art

Rodney Graham, "Spinning Chandelier," 2019. Image Courtesy of Westbank Corporation.
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The following words are angry. Their author has discarded the separation between emotion and analysis customary in his line of work. How else could a warm-blooded art writer respond when our most successful artists are increasingly implicated in making urban lives miserable, if not impossible, for the non-affluent?

Celebrated Canadian artist Rodney Graham recently unveiled a new sculpture in Vancouver, a city I once inhabited until 2014. Dubiously touted as “public” art, the work, titled Spinning Chandelier (2019), comprises a massive chandelier, hanging from the underside of Vancouver’s Granville Street Bridge. The piece comprises six-hundred polyurethane “crystals” and LED lights, armatured by stainless steel. Four years and $4.8 million went into the chandelier’s making; when it spins, the faux crystals splay like an opulent dervish robe. Graham based its design on a chandelier from late 18th-century France – from the Ancien Regime, whose relentless decadence helped galvanize the French revolution.

The under-bridge setting is as much part of the work as its over-fed rococo signification. This grimy – but not too grimy – locale lends the decoration an absurdist charm. It’s easy to imagine people who haven’t had to spend much time in such places chuckling over the contrast of whimsy and urban abjection. On a deeper level, the location provides the dark underlining for what this work really is: a self-serving in-joke about capitalist privilege. Spinning Chandelier was produced by Westbank Corporation, developer of luxury-housing complexes.

I must admit that I want to like Graham, whose early work was gripping in its neurotic, dream-like humor. But a question keeps getting in my way: at what point do we demand of our artistic heroes that they cease in offering ideological cover for vampires and vultures masquerading as city-builders? Predictably, online conversations about Spinning Chandelier swing between rancor and admiration. Within the art scene, though, churns a painful internal struggle. In addition to having made impressive art, Graham has been a friend to many local artists; but this new work serves the interests of neither good art nor communities, only the avarice of real-estate developers and investors.

There’s plenty to object to beyond Graham, not least the personal mythology of Westbank’s figurehead and neoliberal guru, Ian Gillespie. Westbank’s website features many “articles,” including a rags-to-riches profile of Gillespie, in which he poses barefoot and leather-jacketed in a luxury Japanese tea house of his own creation. Below this kittenish portrait, we read of Gillespie’s god-like (and easily debunked) ability to weave luxurious beauty and social housing into one sweeping architectural vision. The profile is unattributed, written by the ghostly hand of an invisible shill.

In funding Graham’s sculpture, Gillespie’s company fulfilled a legal responsibility; as part of city policy, any development in Vancouver must devote a fixed amount of its budget to an art amenity. The development to which Spinning Chandelier is attached is Vancouver House, a futuristic luxury condominium complex. Westbank describes the complex as a Gesamtkunstwerk that will bring “visual splendor to daily life and constantly [inspire] its occupants and visitors.” This may well be true for those who can afford to inhabit its opulent suites (or at least purchase them as perpetually-vacant investment assets). But if Vancouver House is the real artwork, then what is Graham’s chandelier? Perhaps it serves a similar function to that dutifully-scribed profile of Gillespie.

Following the logic of Westbank’s previous use of public art, the banal but undeniable truth is that the piece is an art-washing tool. Through squinted eyes, the piece even resembles an enormous cleaning implement, its glittering crystals standing in for twinkling suds. Westbank bears substantial blame for transforming Vancouver into a city that has been ranked as the second-least affordable on Earth. They have aggressively marketed their luxury suites as investment opportunities rather than dwellings, and are on record as presenting Vancouver’s extreme lack of housing supply and consistently accelerating property costs as proof that investors can expect significant returns on their purchase. The process they profit from sets off waves of property value inflation. This class conflict is also one of systemic racist aggression; as much as Vancouver’s capitalization is destroying communities generally, and the art community specifically, it especially affects people of color, in particular Indigenous people and refugees.

As criticism has increasingly focused on Westbank’s role in the city’s housing crisis, the company has defended itself by invoking their generous construction of affordable housing units. But as it turns out, their use of the word “affordable” has been decidedly liberal.

This past November, a motion passed by Vancouver City Council ordered city staff to stop referring to such suites as “affordable,” on the grounds that fully half of the city’s residents cannot afford them. According to 2019 city guidelines (which allow developers to receive lucrative incentives for providing affordable housing), a studio apartment worth $1,607 per month is considered affordable in east Vancouver, traditionally a working class-area. (For an idea of the rate of inflation, I paid about $850 per month in the more upscale South Granville neighborhood in 2009.) According to Vancouver city councilor, Adrianne Carr, in order to afford such an apartment, a renter would have to earn $64,280 per year. In reality, half of Vancouver’s citizens earn less than $50,000. Put succinctly, the word “affordable,” as deployed by developers and the city, has served only to gaslight an angry and increasingly stressed population.

The fact of Spinning Chandelier’s private funding shouldn’t stifle taxpayer criticism either. Like many capitalized cities, Vancouver long ago ceded the line past which private infrastructure encircles and governs public life. The considerable economic resources of corporations like Westbank grant them nearly free rein to shape our cities in search of new revenue opportunities. As this process innately causes the cost of living to rise, our lives – whether in Vancouver, LA, London, or Berlin – are in turn molded by debt, stress, and poverty.

The unveiling of Graham’s “Spinning Chandelier.” Image Courtesy of Gerry Kahrmann/Postmedia.

Until now, Rodney Graham could be understood as the happy trickster of Vancouver’s photo-conceptualist generation. To recall his erstwhile brainy absurdity is to be all the more depressed by this court-jester routine. Spinning Chandelier was almost certainly motivated by comedic intention. But where Graham’s previous works took the piss out of personal and cultural mythologies, or tinkered playfully with the mechanics of perception itself, this new artwork-as-joke comes at unmistakable human expense. Consolidated in the symbol of this spinning chandelier is a reminder that no square inch eludes the pursuit of capital.

To the jester’s credit, even he has started backing out of the joke. Given how the conversation around Vancouver’s housing crisis has progressed in the last four years, he told an interviewer, he would likely not repeat this project. His words have the ring of damage control. After all, when Graham conceived the chandelier in 2015, the conversation about Vancouver’s real-estate crisis was well underway. The 2010 Vancouver Olympics signaled a mass shift in popular conversation around this issue. Five years later, developers had long since taken hold of the city, and their luxury housing projects were already driving out the low-income population. Graham knew this. Everyone did.

It seems like a logical principle that satire can’t function if it structurally supports the power supposedly being satirized. Spinning Chandelier’s sole interesting aspect is the way it so embodies the failure of critical irony in big-money art. It feels like the work of a very polished edgelord – someone primarily concerned with signaling how nonchalant they are about being bad. The implicit logic seems to be that putting a charged spectacle into the world is the same thing as making good art – so much the better if philistines can’t grasp the shades of cutting irony. As Ana Teixeira Pinto and Kerstin Stakemeier put it, “Artworld edgelords insist the chauvinistic epistemes in which they traffic must be read as irony, no matter how hurtful or distressing others might experience them to be.” Never mind that the gag’s transgressive frisson is available only to those with lives unimperiled by the financial structure that backs it (how many people enjoy laughing at their own pain?). Irreverently detached, this work feigns a critique of decadence with one hand while serving cake with the other.

What I mean to say is that the piece doesn’t only fail because it constitutes a glittering middle finger to the poor and struggling. That’s just obvious. More deeply, it fails because even the positive responses it has garnered evince a vile combination of distanced privilege and smug reverence for facile critical discourse. It’s bad enough that some are content to relish the work’s apparent beauty, unbothered by its corollary suffering. For the chandelier’s defenders, it is valuable because it causes us to think about these issues.

But here’s the thing: the rest of us have already been thinking – have already been seething, for years. This symbol of oblivious decadence shows us nothing that we did not already feel deeply. For this reason it can’t be argued in good faith that its meaning lies in the genesis of conversation. Spinning Chandelier is far more concrete; the sculpture’s material is not only its phony crystal, but also its urban setting, whose social traumas cannot be divorced from the work. Those traumas, having been inflicted by the exact interests that allow this piece to shine so brightly, are both the symptom and the target of this class war taunt. The gaudy decoration simply is what it is.

Speaking to the media, Vancouver’s mayor, Kennedy Stewart, called Spinning Chandelier “the most important piece of public art in the history of our city.” You have to wonder if he realizes how right he is. Judging from what I hear – at parties, on Facebook, in private messages – Spinning Chandelier represents a very important breaking point. An abused citizenry, no longer in thrall to the charm of high-finance art, realizes when the joke is on them: at this point, the laughter stops.

15 Comments

  • Geoffrey James says:

    In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, stealing food and begging in the street.
    Anatole France

  • Jenna says:

    The context of the city’s unaffordability aside, the work itself sucks. It lacks imagination, grit, depth. Neither did Rodney Graham make the work himself… alienated proletariat of worker bees reduced to artisans fabricated the chandelier. If he is proudly “just the ideas person” then… joke’s on him as the piece is neither intellectually striking nor emotionally moving.

  • Sandra Shields says:

    Thanks for unpacking this so thoroughly! Much appreciated.

  • Glen Andersen says:

    I guess Ian Gillespie failed to fully absorb deBord in his art history studies, but that’s no surprise -in his race to become haute cultural tastemaker of the global bourgeoisie, he ran from his humble origins into the waiting arms of big banks only too happy to reward the fast hands of unhinged global capital. Should we feel sorry for poor Rodney sitting in the corner of the podium with his clown makeup half-smeared? No, it’s not good art or even good irony, which must have been the point. The joke’s on us for thinking the aspiration of the hapless bourgeois artist could do anything but land in the cultural meat processor of a Westbank. A folly for fools. The building it “supports” is equally wrongheaded. Not his (Bjarke Ingels) best work either.

  • Page Turner says:

    Long Cold March

    Every day at sunrise
    Out my window I watch
    Something that can only be described as
    The Long Cold March.

    Heavy laden with back packs
    Big plastics bags and such
    Up my street they parade
    Heads bent into the cold …

    They haven’t got much.

    Many men and some women
    Released from the shelters each day.
    They trudge for free food, warm rooms
    and look for a place they can stay.

    But there is nowhere no one that wants them
    And that is the hardest part.
    Trudging back to the shelters
    At the beginning of dark.

    Got to get there early
    Or you’re out on the street
    Got to hang onto your shoes
    Or you might lose your feet.

    This human parade haunts me
    For I am one rent cheque away
    From joining them at the shelters
    And in their long cold morning parade.

    This prospect haunts a lot of people
    But not enough to change it.
    There are people who build chandeliers under bridges
    Who likely could arrange it.

    Page Turner Dec 2019

  • Dennis Nella says:

    Whoa. Is Rodney Graham really ” implicated in making urban lives miserable…”? I’m not sure how, by accepting a grant from a development company, which is mandated by the city, he is somehow fueling the local unaffordability crisis. Instead of blaming the artist, it might make more sense to point the finger at governments (and the voters who voted for them) that chose to do nothing when the crisis began to develop, rather than take the obvious steps to slow down the market. And is one development company really responsible for the problem? I sympathize with everyone who has been priced out of this city, but not sure the artists are the ones to blame.

  • Asher Haller says:

    If you want to say that capitalism sucks and destroys lifes just say it.
    We need to hear it more often.
    Privatly funded public art is hardly the symptom and therefore an easy target.
    If you had higher expectations From Mr. Graham based on the content of his previous work you are simply very naive.

  • James Whitman says:

    Why did I have to leave Vancouver to find out about Fred Lonidier (speaking of important photo-conceptualists)

  • Andrea Cordonier says:

    Illumination is a surveillance strategy marketed under the guise of public safety. Ditto for the grid system. All cities are rushing to light up this and that, often in the name of tourism and providing spectacle for its citizens, thus creating a night/day ambiance similar to the interior of a casino. And – ha-ha, the joke’s on us – a private company has paid (and been rewarded) to remove a little more of the city’s mystery, ambiance, privacy, peace and quiet – its natural state – supposedly for the public’s own good.

    • Mike Vass says:

      Thanks for this. I’ve always admired Graham but this piece is extremely disappointing and you’ve articulated why well. Similar to Kara Walker’s a Subtlety/Sugar Baby sculpture a few years ago (which whatever else it was, functioned undeniably as art washing for the truly despicable real estate developer Two Trees). The art world is long overdue in grappling with the real world effects of these kinds of public works beyond its own insular bubble. We have to start calling out artists – even/especially the good ones – who take these commissions and think (or want us to think) that the intended political content of the works somehow overrides the material circumstances and consequences of their production.

  • brad brace says:

    Context was ever content in Canada.

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